Mom creates job opportunities for young adults on the autism spectrum

When Stella Spanakos was faced with the inevitable -- trying to figure out what her son, living with autism, would do when he grew up -- she took matters into her own hands.

She created The Nicholas Center, which, just like Adapt Community Network, is changing the lives of children with special needs.

It’s a tough number to swallow for parent of a child with special needs: 85 percent of young adults with disabilities are unemployed.

“Eighty-five percent is just unacceptable. Could you imagine if the unemployment rate was 85 percent? We would have to close our doors, wouldn’t we?” Spanakos said.

For Spanakos, the future seemed very unsettling for her son Nicholas, who is both on the spectrum and non-verbal. It was the sudden death of her husband that forced her to act.

“I called a dear friend of mine who had started another organization and I said, 'OK, here’s my idea.' If we’re going to do it, we're going to do it now,” Spanakos said.

They started the Nicolas Center, a life-skills program that offers training to young adults on the autism spectrum.

But they were presented with a problem: where would these young adults find jobs? They began Spectrum Designs.

“We experimented in my barn at first with one machine and we outgrew that very quickly. Then we went to another facility [of] 1,500 square feet. We lasted there for two years. We just had a ribbon cutting at a 7,400-square-feet facility. We employ 72 young adults on the spectrum,” Spanakos said.

Most recently, they created Stella Spectrum Suds, a laundry service, and Spectrum Bakes, which sells baked goods like granola bars and chocolate covered pretzels. Both businesses would not be possible without the hard work of young adults on the spectrum.

“It’s just a beautiful thing when everybody from my son’s life skills class now works at spectrum. It’s just an amazing joy to see these kids that I’ve known since 3 and 4 years old grow … and they have a purpose. They have happiness. They see things from start to finish. There is absolutely no price on this and it’s not like it can’t be done,” Spanakos said.